Turnaround!

Just seven weeks ago, the bleakness seemed absolute. Beyond thought or comprehension. All we could do was huddle together and put one foot forward at a time in little baby steps. But which way was forward? Way too much happened all at once to not consider the possibility that the doors were closing on our family’s chosen path to financial sustainability through farming, writing, and painting, out of our home. Together. Perhaps I just needed a job. Gasp!

One night sticks out in particular. Kneeling in the soil, in a position of utter dependence and submission, I planted row after row of tiny transplants. These had been some of the hardest weeks of our lives, and we needed these plants to produce. Desperately. Thinking about our plight was unthinkable. It was time to simply do. And I prayed. Trusted. Waited…

To review, mere hours after learning my urban farm was in jeopardy due to the sudden sale of house and land where most of it was located, our family’s only vehicle blew its engine and transmission. Months of careful planning were jettisoned. It was all hands on deck. Our very survival demanded it. We had no guaranteed income, and this all came three years after losing my job. Reserves were already down to the bottom of the barrel. Various appliances were breaking, kids were cranky, on and on….

We were, and are, in a crucible. Through these trials, the basic elements of our lives melted down. For a purpose, certainly. Something new is being forged. That’s really exciting, and, frankly, it also sucks. Though these days have been marked by an unsustainable level of busyness, stress, and gastrointestinal distress, HOPE lies not only on the distant horizon, it’s in the very air we breathe. Even from our current vantage point, I can see that these struggles were necessary for our long-term success. Three cheers for hard times, eh? HIP HIP HOORAY!

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This photo will be on the cover of a local magazine real soon. The big paintings in the corner behind us were painted by Shawna in the studio that you can catch a tiny glimpse of just off our living room there.

These trials enabled us to experience community and family in a way I’ve never known before. People came out of the woodwork to lend a helping hand. It was wonderful. I really didn’t have to ask for anything, which felt important, never wanting to be a burden and all. We were never left wanting for a vehicle for nearly two months. This is a big deal while starting a business from scratch, needing to arrive at two farmers markets each week, and make restaurant and grocery store deliveries. My father-in-law built my walk-in cooler without expecting help, because I’m so crunched for time. I could list about a dozen things people have done for us, both big and small. I’m beyond grateful.

We’ve since gotten back our car with a new engine and transmission—thanks to an amazing brother-in-law. In the interim, I decided I didn’t enjoy schlepping around town for a multi-locational farm. I’d rather just grow what I can right here, accepting the limitations for what they are. This was a necessary lesson to learn, because there has been essentially no work/life balance at all. Quality time with the family has been few and far between, as I continuously hustle for our survival. It’s not sustainable. I’m grateful to learn this now instead of two or three years hence, after a slow death by a thousand cuts. My kids are already 12, and something has got to give. Thus, I’m pruning the heck out of the farm.

chickens rainbow
Here’s the scene mere moments before a raging thunderstorm caused the daily move of chickens on pasture to be a bit more interesting than usual. I love “interesting,” but I can’t do everything. I was out there at 5:30 am (8 miles from my home) on this particular day, and it can be a distraction from other things needing to get done. The whopping price of $4.75/pound reflects serious work and expense that goes into raising chickens this way. About half our batch of 98 remain, so let me know if you’re interested. We’re pre-selling all of them. They go to the butcher next Wednesday, July 26th. I suspect they will sell out soon.

The land where most of my farm is located was sold last month, and the new owners are allowing me to garden there through the season. The stress of all this set me back, and really sucked a lot of the joy out of being there. Getting to know the new owners—beautiful people inside and out—has helped a ton, but I’ve learned that I want to garden my own land. To find joy in improving the soil, without worrying that it might be put back into grass in mere months. At least for now. Perhaps some day I’ll move back to the multi-locational model throughout the city, but these days I can hardly wait to squeeze the entire farm onto my property. My goal, ever since losing the corporate gig three years ago, has always been to have all of our economic activity emanate from our home. So, I’ll be cutting the farm back from 7,000 square feet to about 625. YES!!!! I can hardly wait to get more of my (our) life back, and get our entire economic engine more aligned with our values.

Microgreens have really taken off, and are the farm’s focus going forward.

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Much of our backyard is now in the process of being converted into garden space—IF ONLY I COULD USE IT IMMEDIATELY! I have some wonderful compost from all these microgreens, which I cycle through every 8-10 days to the tune of 40-50 trays. It’s like the U.S. Mail. The awesome organic matter just keeps on coming! This should work wonders in our heavy clay soil.

The hugel bed I worked so hard on a couple years ago will be leveled after my kids sell the flowers they’re growing in it. I’ll need to maximize the little space I have for production. Microgreens are the bread and butter, but I find that having beautiful produce, such as radishes, draws people to my market table who otherwise might never be so enticed:

radishes

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A public sidewalk touches this space. My harvest bin actually rests on it while I harvest in the early morning hours. I’ll miss casual conversations with passersby here, but I will gain more contact with my immediate neighbors who I’ve spent less time with lately, due to an unrealistic workload.

Farmer’s market has exceeded expectations. A week ago I made over $1100 in sales there across Wednesday and Saturday market days. That was a real high-water mark, a level I might not match again this season. I was up until 3 am prepping for last Saturday’s market getting a salad mix together, and wound up selling $65 of the stuff. I can’t sustain that. We’ll go ahead and lean the operation down at this point, focusing on the cash crops.

farmers market booth

I have products in two grocery stores. These are currently being stocked by Mount Royal Fine Foods and Super One Lakeside:

grocery store offerings

Arguably, I should have waited to approach the grocery stores. Needing to feed the family, however, I’ve been hustling like never before. Diversified market streams are essential to our long-term stability, so I went for it. It hasn’t been super profitable just yet, but I’m in it for the long game. I sell over 150 clamshells at market each week, but maybe 25 all week across two grocery stores. The difference is that I offer samples at the market. Nobody knows what this stuff is until they try it. One taste of my scrumptious pea shoots usually convinces them. The problem is that I have been far too busy to do many demos at the stores. We’ll remedy that in the fall. I hope to grow these year-round, as long as demand remains high enough to justify the time and expense.

I’ve also been delivering to two restaurants: Lake Avenue Cafe and At Sara’s Table/Chester Creek Cafe.

On the writing front, thanks to an artist fellowship grant I received from the Arrowhead Regional Arts Council,  I’ll devoting the upcoming winter to my next book (about living locally). The $7000 grant is an enormous shot in the arm. A project like this requires a ton of time, and this would be in short supply otherwise. Amazingly, I hit submit on the grant request less than one minute before the deadline. I got all sorts of errors, and somehow got that application through in the last few seconds. Talk about a barnburner! I never thought I’d be selected. So thankful….

My wife received a $3,000 career development grant from the same place, which’ll go toward a big time exhibition she has this November in the Twin Cities. It’s a major step in her career as an artist. The show contains some of her strongest pieces to date. The few images she has leaked out have garnered the attention of magazines and other movers and shakers. There is this feeling that her career is just about to break out.

She has been so focused on this particular show, while being beset by stress from the events of this summer, the demands of being the primary caregiver, etc, that she almost had to cancel a show at Lakeside Gallery that starts in just two weeks. The idea for this exhibition, Woodlandia—a subtle Portlandia reference, came to her only a month ago. She has cranked out all these works and more over just these past few weeks!

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Virtually everything has turned around, or is in the process of doing so. We continue to have serious challenges in the months ahead, so your support and encouragement remains vital. This is community. Thank you!

 


6 thoughts on “Turnaround!

  1. Great news for you, Shawna and the kiddos, Eddy! Seems in our experience over the years, the worst times come right before the best. There is always a learning experience in it all. Wish we lived closer so we could benefit from all your beautiful produce! We will def stop by the farmer’s market if/when we are in Duluth on the right days. Praying for continued blessings for you and your family in the coming days.

  2. This is all so so good to hear!!!!!! I see microgreens and hydrophonics do well here in Arizona, where there is no suitable soil for ‘real’ gardening. I will be praying for you guys, for Shawna’s art to be acknowledge for the awesomeness that it is, and all your hard work too. Market stall looks great!!

  3. Wowee! I am so happy the earth has turned on it’s axis in your favor…I know I don’t have much to offer, but if there is anything at all I can do to help sustain the forward motion, please just yell out your back door! Love from across the alley!

  4. Thanks for sharing and so happy to hear things have turned and are moving forward in such amazing ways! Go team Gilmore! Happy sigh…

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